Sapphire HD 6950 Flex Edition Review

ccokeman - 2011-01-28 20:51:52 in Video Cards
Category: Video Cards
Reviewed by: ccokeman   
Reviewed on: April 3, 2011
Price: $299

Introduction:

Following up on the recent release of the HD 6870 FleX, Sapphire is introducing the HD 6950 FleX Edition video card to bring the performance level up a couple notches for the FleX series. This gives the gamer the ability to run a three monitor SLS (Single Large Surface) display with lower-priced, DVI-equipped monitors. What makes this special when the HD 6970 and standard HD 6950 can do that? Well yes they can, but either DisplayPort-equipped monitors or expensive active DP to DVI adapters are required to make the solution work. Sapphire eliminates this expense with the FleX Edition HD 6950 by allowing the two DVI ports and an HDMI to DVI adapter (included) to become the connectivity option of choice to feed three less expensive DVI monitors. Under the surface, you still get all the HD 6950 features, such as full DirectX 11 support, Dolby® TrueHD and DTSHD Master Audio TM Support, VLIW4 shader architecture, Vapor Chamber cooling, and AMD Advanced Parallel Processing Technology. The Cayman GPU still sports 22 SIMD, 1408 Streaming processors, 88 texture units, 32 ROPs, and a 2GB frame buffer running through a 256-bit bus. Clock speeds are still bone-stock HD 6950 clocks at 800MHz on the core and 1250MHz on the GDDR5 memory. Let's see what Sapphire has to offer with the HD 6950 FleX Edition.

Closer Look:

The packaging for the FleX Edition has all the usual flair that Sapphire uses to present its product and stand out from the crowd. On the front panel, you have the latest representation of "Ruby" against a metallic blue background. The front panel contains a wealth of information about the capabilities of this card. First and foremost is the FleX Edition badge that shows Eyefinity support for three DVI monitors right out of the box and support for up to a total of five monitors with the appropriate adapters. This card is equipped with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and is most definitely not a 1GB card to shed some cost — with SLS support, it will need the full 2GB. Additional features mentioned include DirectX 11, DisplayPort 1.2, 7.1 Surround, and AMD Eyefinity. The back side lists highlights of the HD 6950, while to the right there are brief descriptions about many of the AMD specific features, such as Accelerated Parallel Processing, AMD CrossfireX, and AMD Eyefinity Multi-Display technology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The inner packaging is made mostly from recyclable materials — with the exception of the bag holding the card and some of the accessories, the rest is 100% recyclable. The card sits in a cardboard-formed shell, while the accessories reside in a box under this shell.

 

 

The bundle of accessories for a product can add or detract from the value of the whole package. Sapphire includes one of the most complete bundles of any manufacturer. Included with this offering are the manual, driver disk, invitation to join the Sapphire Select club, a 6-foot HDMI cable, Crossfire Bridge connector, DisplayPort to HDMI dongle, HDMI to DVI dongle, DVI to D-Sub adapter, and a pair of 4-pin molex to 6-pin PCIe power adapter.

 

The Sapphire HD 6950 FleX Edition offers up a unique way to drive multi-display functionality. Let's dig a little deeper to see what's under the hood of this latest 6900 series offering from Sapphire.

Closer Look:

The first thing that hits you when you see the Sapphire HD 6950 FleX is that this is not simply a reference card with a fancy connectivity package — this card looks like a full on Vapor X Edition card. The shroud and heat pipes sell it as a Vapor X offering. The FleX Edition uses a central-mounted fan that blows air through Sapphire's Vapor Chamber-based cooling solution. The looks are flashy enough to satisfy the bling crowd with chromed accents along the shroud. The back side of the PCB is covered in surface mount components. On the bottom left, by the VRM circuitry, is what looks to be a Chil CHL8266 voltage controller. The blue PCB stands out from the black used on the reference version of the HD 6950.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The connectivity options look to be similar to the HD 6900 series standard of a Dual Link DVI, SIngle Link DVI, HDMI, and a pair of DisplayPort 1.2 connectors. To facilitate a third DVI connection, Sapphire includes an HDMI to DVI dongle so that three DVI monitors can be used for an Eyefinity SLS display. This way, entry into a three-monitor gaming system can be offered up without totally breaking the bank. By hooking up the two DisplayPort 1.2 ports, the card will support up to five monitors. Of course, active adapters or DisplayPort monitors will be needed. The HDMI port supports the HDMI 1.4a standard, as well as support for 7.1 High Bitrate Audio. The exhaust venting is still an issue with this HD 6900 series card on the back plate. The rear of the HD 6950 FleX is open to exhaust the heat from the GPU out into the chassis. As much as I love the Vapor Chamber cooling, the added heat dumped into the chassis can affect thermal performance of other installed components. The thermal dump was no where near what is discharged by the HD 6990 and GTX 590, but the result is the same. A chassis with great ventilation is the solution to this problem.

 

 

Like the reference version, the HD 6950 FleX supports CrossfireX with up to a total of four cards. The dual CrossfireX bridge connections are used to carry the data between the cards. The Dual BIOS switch is located just behind the rear bridge connection and allows for a quick recovery if the BIOS should be corrupted or incorrectly flashed. Dual 6-pin power connections are required for this card, providing a total of 225 watts of incoming power for a 200 watt TDP card. The recommended power supply for use with the HD 6950 FleX is 500 watts in capacity.

 

 

Never one to leave well enough alone, I had to tear this card apart to see what was under the shroud. The Vapor Chamber cooling solution should deliver temperatures better than the reference design. The design uses a large aluminum base plate with two heat pipes feeding out to the edges of the fin array. The center of the heat sink assembly holds the 92mm fan from ADDA. As best as I can figure, this is a 92mm fan with an Ultra High speed rating using 12v.

 

 

 

The HD 6900 series cards come equipped with a Cayman GPU built using the 40nm process with 2.64 billion transistors and is 389mm in size. This one is built using AMD's VLIW4 architecture equipped with 22 SIMD, 1408 streaming processors. 88 texture units and 32 ROPs. Clock speeds are the HD 6950 defaults of 800MHz on the core and 1250MHz on the Hynix H5GQ2H24MFR-T2C modules. These modules are rated to run at 1250MHz, but have consistently run well at about 1500MHz on the AMD Cayman-based GPUs.

 

 

Now that the hood has been lifted and we have seen what's underneath, let's take a look at what this means for performance. The expectation is that it will be right where the reference 6950 performs.

Specifications:

SKU    
11188-04
ASIC
Radeon HD 6950
Bus Interface
 PCI-E x16 (PCI-E 2.1)
Memory
2048MB / 256-bit GDDR5
Clock Speed  
800MHz Eclk / Effective 5000MHz Mclk
Cooling System 
Dual slot Fan with auto fan control
Bracket
Full Height
Display Support
DL-DVI-I, SL-DVI-D, Mini Display Port x 2, HDMI, VGA (Via included adaptor)
HDCP
Yes
Crossfire Support
Native Hardware Crossfire
External Power
PCIe Graphic External 2 x 6-pin
Accessories
Crossfire Interconnect Cable x 1
HDMI To DVI Adapter x 1
DVI to VGA Adaptor x 1
6-pin to 4-pin Power Cable x 2
Mini DP to DP Adapter x 1
HDMI 1.4a 1.8 meter cable x 1 (Full Retail only)
Software
Driver CD
TriXX Support*

 

Features:

System Requirements:

 

Testing:

Testing of the Sapphire HD 6950 FleX will consist of running it and comparison cards through the OverclockersClub.com suite of games and synthetic benchmarks. This will test the performance against many popular competitors. Comparisons will be made to cards of equal and greater capabilities to show where they fall on the performance ladder. The games used are some of today's newest and most popular titles to give you an idea of how the cards perform relative to each other.

The system specifications will remain the same throughout the testing. No adjustment will be made to the respective control panels during the testing other than applying the AA and AF settings manually in the control panel. I will test the cards at stock speeds, then overclocked in order to see the effects of any increases in clock speed. The cards are placed in order from highest to lowest performing in the graphs to show where the cards fall by comparison. In addition to the stock testing, I will include performance testing in both Surround (NVIDIA) and Eyefinity (AMD) with the appropriate cards. For this review, a few new games have replaced some of the aging titles.

 

 

Comparison Video Cards:

 

Overclocking:

Overclocking the HD 6950 Flex in no different than overclocking a standard card — the display connectivity aside, they act and clock the same. There are a few utilities available for overclocking graphics cards out on the web that for the most part work with most video cards. Many of the top manufacturers have their own utility and Sapphire is no different with its TRIXX utility. I have used this utility before and it is fairly straight forward to use. Sapphire has equipped the Flex with a Vapor Chamber-based cooling solution that allowed temperatures to hover around the 60 degrees Celsius mark when the fan was spooled up to 100%. This level of cooling let the HD 6950 Cayman core run up to 904MHz, or 104MHz over the baseline setting — this without the ability to increase the voltage on this card. The Hynix GDDR5 memory was able to scale another 255MHz over the as-delivered 1250MHz clock speed. On a percentage basis, these increases equate to 13% for the CPU core and just over 20% on the memory. These increases did lead to significant increases across most of the benchmark suite, with Metro 2033 and Unigine 2.5 showing the least amount of scaling at 2560x1600.

 

Maximum Clock Speeds:

Testing for the maximum clock speed consists of looping Crysis Warhead and Unigine 2.5 for 30 minutes each to see where the clock speeds will fail when pushed. If the clock speed adjustment fails, then the clock speeds and tests are rerun until they pass the full 1 hour of testing.

   

 

  1. Aliens vs. Predator
  2. Metro 2033
  3. Crysis Warhead
  4. HAWX 2
  5. Just Cause 2
  6. Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5
  7. Mafia II
  8. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
  9. Lost Planet 2
  10. 3DMark 11
  1. Temperature
  2. Power Consumption

Aliens vs. Predator, developed by Rebellion Developments, is a science fiction first-person shooter and is a remake of its 1999 game. The game is based off the two popular sci fi franchises. In this game, you have the option of playing through the single player campaigns as one of three species, the Alien, the Predator, and the Human Colonial Marine. The Game uses Rebellion's Asura game engine that supports Dynamic Lighting, Shader Model 3.0, Soft Particle systems, and Physics. To test this game I will be using the Aliens vs. Predator benchmark tool with the settings listed below. All DirectX 11 features are enabled.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The HD 6950 FleX performs in the envelope it should based on the comparison cards. At 5760 x 1080 it does struggle with the settings used, but by reducing the resolution and/or settings, the performance can scale upwards.

Testing:

Part first-person shooter, part survival horror, Metro 2033 is based on the novel of the same name, written by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. You play as Artyom in a post-apocalyptic Moscow, where you'll spend most of your time traversing the metro system, with occasional trips to the surface. Despite the dark atmosphere and bleak future for mankind, the visuals are anything but bleak. Powered by the 4A Engine, with support for DirectX 11, NVIDIA PhysX and NVIDIA 3D Vision, the tunnels are extremely varied — in your travels, you'll come across human outposts, bandit settlements, and even half-eaten corpses. Ensuring you feel all the tension, there is no map and no health meter. Get lost without enough gas mask filters and adrenaline shots and you may soon wind up as one of those half-eaten corpses — chewed up by some horrifying manner of irradiated beast that hides in the shadows just waiting for some hapless soul to wander by.

 

Settings:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In Metro 2033, the HF 6950 FleX delivers performance about equivalent to the GTX 570. When overclocked, this relationship stays the same. At 5760 x 1080, with DOF turned off, the frame rates are almost playable with the standard game settings used. Dropping the settings a little more would deliver a solid 30+ FPS.

Testing:

Crysis Warhead is a standalone expansion pack situated in time with the story line of the original Crysis. As Sergeant "Psycho" Sykes, you have a secret mission to accomplish on the far side of the island. Along the way there are EMP blasts and aliens to contend with, as you hunt down the KPA chief. This game uses an enhanced version of the CryEngine 2.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The HD 6950 FleX performs just under the HD 6970 and above the GTX 570 across all the standard resolutions. In the surround testing, the single HD 6950 is at a disadvantage. Overclocking helps drive performance across all the resolutions.

Testing:

H.A.W.X. 2 is an arcade-style flight game and is the sequel to H.A.W.X.. The Game is published by Ubisoft and was released in late 2010.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

The tessellation setting in this game drives the performance downwards on the HD 6900 series, but is still playable at the tested settings. The 6950 is the only single-GPU card in the 5760x1080 testing due to its ability to run the resolution without active adapters.

Testing:

Published by Capcom, Lost Planet 2 is the sequel to Lost Planet: Extreme Condition and uses the MT Framework 2.0 engine. The storyline takes place on the fictional planet E.D.N. III some 10 years after the events of the first game. This time, the snow cover is gone and has been replaced by a tropical landscape. With this new rendition of the game comes the ability to run it using either DirectX 9 or 11. Along with this ability comes the chance to use that new DX 11 hardware to effect. DX11 features in this game include tessellation, displacement mapping on water, bosses and player characters, soft body compute shaders on “Boss” characters, and wave simulation by way of DirectCompute. This gives you smoke that is lifelike and reacts to inputs, water that looks and reacts how you would expect it to in a "real life" situation, and "Boss" characters rendered with more depth and detail. If the latest graphics quality settings are not enough, NVIDIA has included support behind this game for both 3D Vision and 3D Vision Surround, which gives you 3D effects over multiple screens. There is no better way to see how a game will perform than to test it out. Capcom has made this easy with a downloadable benchmark that we will be using to test out a cross section of today's currently available performance video cards.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

This game is one that proves a tough challenge for the AMD cards.

Testing:

Unigine Heaven Benchmark 2.5 is a DirectX 11 GPU benchmark based on the Unigine engine.  This was the first DX 11 benchmark out to allow testing of  DX 11 features. What sets the Heaven Benchmark apart is the addition of hardware tessellation, available in three modes — Moderate, Normal and Extreme. Although tessellation requires a video card with DirectX 11 support and Windows Vista/7, the Heaven Benchmark also supports DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4.0. Visually, it features beautiful floating islands that contain a tiny village and extremely detailed architecture.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In the Heaven Benchmark, the HD 6950 FleX performs to its capabilities.

Testing:

Just Cause 2 is a third-person shooter that takes place on the fictional island of Panau in Southeast Asia. In this sequel to 2006's Just Cause, you return as Agent Rico Rodriguez to overthrow an evil dictator and confront your former boss. When you don't feel like following the main story line, you're free to roam the island, pulling off crazy stunts and causing massive destruction in your wake, all beautifully rendered by the Avalanche Engine 2.0. In the end, that's what the game basically boils down to — crazy stunts and blowing things up. In fact, blowing things up and wreaking havoc is actually necessary to unlock new missions and items.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Sapphire's HD 6950 keeps pace with the GTX 570 in this benchmark in the stock and overclocked tests.

Testing:

Mafia II is a third-person shooter that puts you into the shoes of a poor, Sicilian immigrant, Vito Scarletta. Vito has just returned home from serving overseas in the liberation of fascist Italy — to avoid serving his jail sentence — to find his family in debt. The debt must be repaid by the end of the week, and his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro, conveniently happens to have questionable connections that he assures will help Vito clear the debt by that time. As such, Vito is sucked into a world of quick cash. Released in North America for PC in August of 2010, the game was developed by 2K Czech published by 2K and uses the Illusion 1.3 game engine.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

As the resolution increases, the HD 6950 evens the playing field against the GTX 570. 5760x1080 is not playable with the settings used in this review, although increasing performance is as simple as reducing the settings and/or resolutions.

Testing:

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is a first-person shooter developed by EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE) and published by Electronic Arts for Windows, PS3 and XBox. This game is part of the Battlefield franchise and uses the Frostbite 1.5 Engine, allowing for destructible environments. You can play the single player campaign or multiplayer with five different game modes. Released in March 2010, it has so far sold in excess of six million copies.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

Even though it is not the fastest card in this deck, the HD 6950 FleX Edition delivers playable performance all the way up to 5760x1080.

Testing:

3DMark 11 is the next installment for Futuremark in the 3DMark series with Vantage as its predecessor. The name implies that this benchmark is for Microsoft DirectX 11 and with an unintended coincidence, the name matches the upcoming date in number (which was the naming scheme to some prior versions of 3DMark nonetheless). 3DMark 11 is designed solely for DirectX 11 so Windows Vista or 7 are required along with a DirectX 11 graphics card in order to run this test. The Basic Edition has unlimited free tests on performance mode whereas Vantage only allowed for a single test run. The advanced edition costs $19.95 and unlocks nearly all of the features of the benchmark and the professional edition runs $995.00 and is mainly suited for corporate use. The new benchmark contains six tests, four of which are aimed only at graphical testing, one to test for physics handling and one to combine graphics and physics testing together. The open source Bullet Physics library is used for physics simulations and although not as mainstream as Havok or PhysX, it still seems to be a popular choice.

With the new benchmark comes two new demos that can be watched, both based on the tests but unlike the tests, these contain basic audio. The first demo is titled "Deep Sea" and have a few vessels exploring what looks to be a sunken U-Boat. The second demo is titled "High Temple" and is similar to South American tribal ruins with statues and the occasional vehicle around. The demos are simple in that they have no story, they are really just a demonstration of what the testing will be like. The vehicles have the logos of the sponsors MSI and Antec on their sides with the sponsorships helping to make the basic edition free. The four graphics tests are slight variants of the demos. I will use the three benchmark test preset levels to test the performance of each card. The presets are used as they are comparable to what can be run with the free version so that results can be compared across more than just a custom set of test parameters.

 

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

   

Higher = Better

 

In this benchmark, the HD 6950 FleX delivers what it is capable of. Overclocking drives performance upwards, but not enough to catch the GTX 570. 5760x1080 was not tested in this benchmark because of the way the screens are rendered. The performance looks correct based on the capabilities of the card, but bad results are as good as no results, so they are not shown.

Testing:

Temperature testing will be accomplished by loading the video card to 100% using Crysis Warhead with MSI's Afterburner overclocking utility for temperature monitoring. I will be using a resolution of 1920x1200 using 8xAA. I will use a 10-run sequence to run the test, ensuring that the maximum thermal threshold is reached. The fan speed will be left in the control of the driver package and video card's BIOS for the stock load test, with the fan moved to 100% to see the best possible cooling scenario for the overclocked load test. The idle test will be a 20-minute cool down with the fan speeds left on automatic in the stock speed testing and bumped up to 100% when running the overclocked idle and load testing.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

  

Lower = Better

 

The idle temperatures delivered by the VaporX cooling solution were not the lowest at idle, but did a great job at delivering excellent temperatures under load in both the stock and overclocked tests. The noise from this cooler was not as quiet as I normally hear with this solution from Sapphire. When the cooler is controlled automatically, the card stays almost inaudible, but when the fan speed is bumped up, it is audible over the case fans.

Testing:

Power Consumption of the system will be measured in both idle states and loaded states and will take into account the peak voltage of the system with each video card installed. I will use MSI Kombuster to load the GPU for a 15-minute test and use the peak load of the system as my result for the maximum load. The idle results will be measured after 15 minutes of inactivity on the system. For load testing the GTX 500 series, I will once again use Crysis Warhead run at 2560x1600 using the Gamer setting with 8xAA looping the Avalanche benchmark scenario.

Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

   

Lower = Better

 

When you throw in all the heavy hitters at the top of the discrete graphics card ladder, the HD 6950 Flex has no other option than to deliver the lowest power consumption of the group.

Conclusion:

The HD 6950 FleX from Sapphire offers up a good solution for an entry into the world of Eyefinity. Although there are other FleX models (HD 6870, HD 5770, HD 5670), the HD 6950 version is by far the most powerful, single Eyefinity capable card that does not require an active adapter or DisplayPort-based monitors. Sure the monitors cost some money, but a trio of 22" DVI-equipped monitors will only set you back around $430 if you shop carefully vs. around $750 for a trio of DisplayPort-equipped monitors. That's a huge savings right out of the gate if interested in a 3 x 22" monitor Eyefinity setup. With a three monitor setup at $430 and the $299 suggested price for this card, you are still looking at a $700+ investment. That being said, the performance at 5760x1080 with our test settings proved a little too much for the HD 6950 on its own in many of the benchmarks. But that's the worst case scenario and can be rectified by reducing the resolution or tweaking the settings to maximize the performance of the game to each person's individual tastes. I like the eye candy, but others lean to max performance for the fast game experience.

The Sapphire HD 6950 FleX is equipped with one of Sapphire's Vapor Chamber cooling solutions that does a great job of reducing the GPU core temperature to manageable levels. During the baseline and overclocked testing, the HD 6950 FleX kept the temperature at 60 degrees Celsius. During the baseline testing, the fan is automatically controlled to keep the noise signature in check and maximize cooling when needed. During the overclocked testing, the fan is manually controlled and set to 100% so that the maximum overclock on this card can be reached. However, setting the fan speed manually with a noise penalty. Although no where near as loud as the AMD reference cooler, this card does spike the noise up higher than what I have seen in the past, making the fan slightly louder than the case fans in my chassis.

The cooling capabilities help this card reach over 900MHz on the core and over 1500MHz on the GDDR5 memory. The increases came in at 13% on the CPU and just over 20% on the memory. Overclocking to this level showed definite increases in performance across the entire test suite, making the time expense to figure out the best clocks for the HD 6950 FleX well worth the effort. Sapphire has another unique card to fit a specific purpose and, in that respect, it has hit the mark. You get Eyefinity capability without the added expense, making this a viable upgrade path. If the single card is not enough, performance can be scaled higher with the addition of another Sapphire HD 6950 2GB card. If you are daring enough to try and mod the second BIOS, you can try and flash the card to an HD 6970 (not saying that it works, just stating the possibilities). Priced slightly higher than a reference card, the FleX has added benefits that justify the added cost — Vapor X cooling, Eyefinity on cheap, and the great looks associated with the Vapor X design.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: